Downbeat yet quietly passionate eloquence from a man of low self-esteem who is hurting bad makes for an unexpectedly riveting ride in Andrew Cowan‘s novel, Crustaceans (Hodder, 2000). Three days before Christmas, on the occasion of his son’s sixth birthday Paul is driving through a snow-covered East Anglia to a seaside town where they and his partner had a caravan and happy times. He’s talking to his son, Euan, though it soon becomes apparent he is not in the car. He’s telling Euan all about meeting his mother, first as a student then following her to London, and how he came into the world, about his own unhappy childhood, about the remote father he was desperate to be a better father than, about a tragic mother he hardly knew.
Crustaceans is a heartbreaker. Part of it is a graphic illustration of Philip Larkin‘s This be the verse (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad …” – that one), part of it is about how two people deal with grief and bereavement. (That’s not much of a giveaway, by the way, from early on). One is aware of the randomness and contingency that is a part of living a life, throughout. It’s a slow build to the awful event at the heart of the driver’s pain. The end might be optimistic, but you can’t rely on it.
Andrew Cowan is a tremendous writer, an English author who I think deserves much greater recognition. This is a poignant, vivid, and compassionate novel, which, although presented as a first person narrative, is skillfully delivered with detachment. There is no wastage of words in its 229 (paperback) pages. There are many haunting passages of both introspective recall and crystal clear physical description. The picture painted, for example, of the ultimately derelict workshop of Paul’s chain-smoking father – once a successful large form sculptor – the rusted remnants of unfinished pieces, works on both levels. This is a book of lamenting that sings. There are no jokes. Euan collected shells.
Comings and goings
Busy week, week before last. Farewell to JL, good man of amusing and amused look, of intelligent cheeky grin, mischievous without malice. Happened at a big North London necropolis – New Southgate – where the funeral trains used to run to from Kings Cross in Victorian times. God-free, we went in to the Invisible String Band (The half remarkable question) and came out to Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss (I’ll fly away), with contemplative birdsong and Adlestrop in between. Remembered, as in life, whenever the Ipswich Town result comes up …
And so, Monday evening, to The Stables for Lau, a Scottish three-piece folk and sonic exploration band featuring guitar, keyboards (and loops) and incredibly hard-working fiddle. Booked on the rave recommendations of a couple of friends -“great live” – without having heard anything beyond a couple of doleful YouTube songs, was impressed but not entirely knocked out.
The guitarist had a beautiful Scottish singing voice that I would have liked to have heard more of, and less of the, ahem, descents into ‘sonic exploration’, or what we in older times would call ‘freak outs’. Which, it has to be said, they did come out of beautifully, while some complex arrangements were delivered with aplomb and the songs were things of beauty. Martin with left hand working the accordion balanced on his knees and doing all sorts of things with the right, eyes closed as if in sleep, was a sight to behold. Didn’t realise until going to their website that the percussive workout that he opened with was accomplished with forks and spoons mounted on a board.
After some earlier mutterings about lemon cake they introduced Lal Waterson’s Midnight feast, at which Martin made more mention of lemon drizzle cake. Can’t remember who said it – might have been himself – but acknowledgment was made of his literal mindedness. Without missing a beat: “I believe all poetry is basically lying“. The music was lyrical. Unlike Mr Hobbs, was glad I went.
Two bards and a fine band for the November Scribal and a full set of familiar open mic-ers. Palmerston their usual immaculate playing and harmonies on great original songs. American influences but a music hall comic’s performance from Peter Ball with I like to drink, staggering up and down the room, sitting on tables, radio mic in hand, not missing a beat, even when helped to his feet by Stony’s slightest of frame ex-Bard. Another performance of great charm from Morris side concertina-ist who knows how to pick ’em: obscure Lennon/McCartney (as recorded by Billy J.Kramer) and Booby Vee – I’d forgotten all about I’ll keep you satisfied, and The night has a thousand eyes respectively. At Vaultage later in the week we whistled along to Chris Wesson’s finely crafted pop songs (only one we whistled to, actually, but … poetic license, you get the gist?) and enjoyed some fine Evs and S&G harmonies on some Pocket Full of Peanuts originals.
Wednesday and it’s pain and longing – off we go to the opera. But you can’t go wrong with Glyndebourne on Tour and Wolfgang Amadeus. Mozart‘s Die entfuhrung aus dem Serail aka The abduction from the seraglio. [Seraglio, by the way, one of those words you hardly ever find outside of cryptic crosswords].
Great orchestra, a rhythmic score, a good-looking inventive set – what you’d expect. I’ve no great claim to judge the singing – could have done without the coloratura from the female lead, which remains my problem with opera – but it sounded fine to me, the acting and theatrical ‘business’ up to Glyndebourne’s high standard. The singer playing the character of Blonde – hooped stockings, cartwheeling in glee at one stage – stole the show in the way that the crude mechanicals make the leads look dull in Shakespeare’s comedies; she was great. The outcome prescient for these time: the transcendence of old hostilities, a retreat from people ownership, the power of love witnessed to bring on change.
One last thought about opera. This was one of those where the dialogue is not sung, not delivered in recitative. I can grant that the arias and all should be sung in the language they’re written for, but if it’s just spoken dialogue, surely a decent translation, rather than the précis translation you see on the text screen, would at the least take nothing away?
I dunno. Sarah Waters‘ The night watch (Virago, 2006), 500 pages long in the paperback edition, was short-listed for the Booker and the Orange Prizes, but if it hadn’t been a Book Group book, and the prospect of an interesting discussion, I doubt I’d have got into three figures. But then I would have missed the best bit, which, with a bit of background thrown in, that would have made a fine novella. I speak of Julia and Helen’s haunting, lyrical walk one night, at the start of their relationship, through the streets of Holborn and among the damaged old churches of the East End.
Because it’s mostly set in a bombed London in the Second World War, comparisons with Kate Atkinson‘s powerful Life after life were inevitable for me. While Ursula in that is with a rescue and demolition team, Kate in this is with an ambulance unit that takes over from them at the scene. Life after life very effectively plays around with time – a snakes and one-step-at-a-time ladders affair that gives the breadth of a variety to the outcomes in the episodes set in the rubble and the ruins – and The night watch‘s chronology is unorthodox too. Kicking off bleakly in 1947 (the first 169 pages), it goes back to 1944 (the main action – 279 pages), and finishes by briefly revealing how all these stories started (46 pages). One of the characters says:
‘I go to the cinema […] Sometimes I sit through the film twice over. Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way – people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures.
Not sure it applies to the novel, though. With a chronological structure like that, if I’d been really engaged, I’d have expected to want to go back to page one and keenly explore it again in a new light. Didn’t happen; maybe, I’ll grant, it’s just me.
In The night watch we’re out on the margins, back then in another secret world. Featuring two women, lesbians, linked over time by a relationship with a woman novelist, a probably homosexual young man in prison. Also to the fore is his glamour girl sister, obsessed with, getting pregnant by, a married soldier. With a side cast of a Christian Science medical practitioner, a protective retired prison warder (his relationship with the young man is left ambiguous – to me, anyway), a middle class jack the lad conscientious objector. All damaged people linked one way or another, with maybe glimmers of personal hope for some at the end (ie. the end of the first section). “We never seem to love the people we ought to,” one of the women says, from the remains of a bombed house. The women are finely drawn, but I’m far from convinced by the episode that got the precious young man into prison, though, as I say, another world back then.
I had a problem with some of the prose too. There’s a lot of blushing, some of the romance strikes me as a bit close to Mills & Boon at times, and the word ‘queer’ seems to innocently, old school, be employed a fair number of times; not sure if that’s meant, and why, or not. What I said about Andrew Cowan at the top of this piece, not wasting words. What is one to make of:
- He was opening the tin of ham as he spoke; turning its key over and over with his great, blunt fingers, producing a line of exposed meat like a thin pink wound. Viv saw Duncan watching; she saw him blink and look away. [Is that meant to indicate some sort of sensuality?] [27.11.2015: Have to admit after the Book Group discussion there is some relevance to this, harking back to events in 1941, but even then I’m not convinced by the image].
- cameras flashing “like bombs” [Really?]
- His nails were cut bluntly, but shone as if polished. [So what?]
- He went to the armchair and sat down, unfastening the top two buttons of his jacket … [Surely the wrong way round?]
- A strand or two of tobacco came loose upon Duncan’s tongue … [it’s a problem with roll-ups, true]
- [and what exactly is meant by …] the empty yet bullying expression of people who have settled down for a night at the cinema …
I’ve got others, all jolly unfair no doubt. Then there’s:
Julia pulled on a broken stalk. ‘ “Nature triumphant over war”,’ she said, in a wireless voice; for it was the sort of thing that people were always writing about to the radio – the new variety of wildflower they had spotted on the bomb-sites, the new species of bird, all of that – it had got terrible boring.
Now, I would have been interested in that. Enough.